Ahmedabad, March 26: Narendra Modi confronted the first test of his second stint in office after senior BJP leader Haren Pandya was shot dead by unidentified assailants this morning.
Accused of leading rioters in the violence a day after the Godhra carnage, the killing — as Pandya was returning home after his daily morning walk — has raised suspicions of reprisal. In December last year, there was an attempt to murder Jaideep Patel, a Vishwa Hindu Parishad leader charged with a role in the riots.
Pandya, 43, was shot as he came back to his white Maruti 800 after his walk at Law Garden to return home. The assailants pumped four bullets into him — one in the right side of the neck, two below the ribs and one in the lower abdomen — from a .32 calibre revolver.
Pandya leaves behind his parents, wife and two sons.
Police have no clues yet. But as the chief minister reached VS Hospital where the former home minister, who fell out with Modi before the Assembly polls last year, was taken, Pandya supporters started shouting angry slogans.
“Modi hai hai,” they screamed. “You (Modi) are responsible for Pandya’s death because you had withdrawn his security,” some said loudly. Modi made sure in the election that Pandya, who had won several times from Ellisbridge in Ahmedabad, was not given a ticket and got his way after a prolonged tussle with the BJP’s central leadership.
Things got so hot for Modi that former chief minister Keshubhai Patel, Pandya’s mentor, had to intervene to prevent further embarrassment.
The Opposition Congress, silenced by a crushing defeat in polls, found its voice again and called a bandh tomorrow in protest against the killing and alleged breakdown of law and order.
Sensing an opportunity for his opponents to push him into a corner, given the history of his animosity with Pandya, Modi quickly recommended a CBI probe, nipping in the bud the Congress demand for such an investigation.
The murder occurred around 8.30 am, about 2 km from his residence in Ahmedabad’s Paldi area. After being shot, Pandya remained unattended for about 45 minutes before a passerby noticed him and informed the police. Sources in the police found it surprising that there were no blood marks inside the car.
Dr Anil Sharma, in charge of the emergency ward at VS Hospital, said “doctors tried to resuscitate him but did not succeed”.
According to the police, the assailants came on a motorcycle, but it was not clear what the basis of this conjecture was since there were no witnesses. The area is by no means unpopulated but this morning all the shops in the vicinity were closed because of a trade strike, which the killers might have taken into account.
As the news spread, a large number of supporters collected outside the hospital’s emergency ward, shouted slogans against Modi and heckled senior minister Ashok Bhatt and home minister Amit Shah. Some of them manhandled journalists also.
Immediately on returning to Gandhinagar, the chief minister called a meeting of senior police officers and decided that the investigation would be handed over to the CBI, home secretary K. Nityanandam said.
At the hospital, some Pandya loyalists said their leader had no “personal enemies” and was killed for “political reasons”. The Congress said so, too. But there are others who say “he could have been killed because of personal animosity’’.
Pandya is involved in the construction business and has a number of partners, but he himself plays no active role. There are whispers about a dispute over a prime property in the city.
In the rioting on February 28, 2002, a day after the Godhra carnage, Pandya was accused of leading a mob that attacked Muslims. But later when he was sidelined by Modi, Pandya resigned as revenue minister and was charged by the chief minister with deposing before a citizens’ tribunal to give evidence against his own government, which had then been scarred by allegations of standing by to watch the rioting.
It made Modi so angry that he took the risk of going against the wishes of Atal Bihari Vajpayee and L.K. Advani to oppose Pandya’s renomination from Ellisbridge, a seat Pandya had won for three consecutive terms.
Senior party MLA Bharat Pandya said the murder “seems to be a terrorist attack’’. But the party is not speaking in one voice. Rohit Patel, a former councillor and one of Pandya’s close friends, dismissed these theories — reprisal and terrorist strike — as “rubbish”. “It is nothing but political murder’’.
Patel said Pandya was feared because he was an outspoken person.
Advani, BJP president Venkaiah Naidu and Union ministers Arun Jaitley and Kashiram Rana will attend Pandya’s funeral tomorrow.